by Jason Degelman
The Industrial Music Electronics Piston Honda Mark III is the latest iteration in IME’s storied wavetable oscillator design. The Mark III presents two wavetable oscillators, each with independent pitch control and independently assignable wavetable locations. Unlike the previous Mark I and Mark II designs, Mark III has a ‘high fidelity’ 16 bit audio output--an instantly audible upgrade. Gone is the familiar blood-red 7 segment LED readout, replaced with a small OLED display that provides a much richer visual feedback as to what the Mark III's intentions are: an oscilloscope displays the currently playing waveform, presets are recalled, tuning information is shown, and menu items are easily navigated. The Mark III's 512 wavetable locations are actually less than the Mark II's 4096 locations, however, this reduction in location quantity actually improves physical repeatability when accessing specific waves [a full sweep of the slider selects from 8 locations rather than 16] and scales well. Despite the litany of changes—and in some cases because of them!—the Mark III still resides in its predecessor’s relatively compact 17 HP footprint. Industrial Music Electronics has a reputation for making digital audio products with a harsh sonic signature, and the previous Mark I and II versions both shared these ‘lo-fi’ characteristics. Not so with the Mark III. The sound is clear and strong, and virtually alias-free at most settings thanks to the high resolution 16 bit outputs, and if desired, the output mode can be switched to emulate the character of the previous Piston Honda versions.
Wavetable oscillators like this one utilize ‘lookup’ tables--a computer science term that refers to an array of stored values that are easily accessible by means of an index. In this case, the values stored in the lookup table are the waveform data itself--from simple analog-style waves such as Sine and Ramp to more complex, unusual and aggressive waveforms. By modulating the index with control voltage, you can create a wide variety of evolving and unique tones by morphing one wave into another.
The lookup table structure can be considered ‘three dimensional’; that is to say it has three separate indexes. These indexes [called X, Y and Z] are arranged hierarchically, with Z being the highest level. Each index location can be modulated with a +/- 8v control voltage, yielding complete access to every nook and cranny of the 512 locations available. Built-in attenuators for each of the X, Y, and Z inputs are essential for yielding more subtle results; these knobs, as well as the index location faders, can be set independently for each of the two oscillators, and saved to a preset if desired. The factory waveforms can be easily replaced by the user via a Micro SD slot located on the front panel, with the excellent WaveEdit tool from Synthesis Technology being suggested for custom waveform creation.
The preset capability demonstrated by the Piston Honda Mark III is uniquely advanced. You can now recall specific tunings, wavetable locations, and menu options, either manually, or by means of a CV input located next to the screen. By applying modulation to this single CV input, the behavior of the module can be radically altered, and an additional mode even allows a trigger to completely randomize all front panel settings of the module!
For those who rely on western tuning, the Piston Honda Mark III again sets a new standard. Simply turning the primary tune knob all the way counterclockwise results in a safe and musical C0, and chances of drift or accident knocking the module out of tune mid-performance are low. As a performer I feel comfortable “getting crazy” with the controls of this oscillator—even the frequency controls!—because I have confidence that I will be able to recover the previously tuned pitch at any point, either by turning to the full CCW position or by reloading a preset.
The Mark III includes an AC coupled FM input on each oscillator, with each input internally normalled to the output of the other oscillator. This allows you to manually introduce audio rate frequency modulation to either oscillator without additional patching, although controlling FM amount via CV requires patching into an external source. The FM input can also process audio directly through the internal wavetable when in ‘external’ mode. A bipolar general purpose CV modulation input is provided alongside the traditional 1/Vo input, allowing for introduction of vibrato or other modulation. Unison mode is available for each oscillator, allowing for a total of 4 ‘stacked’ oscillators at once. This mega-unison can sound enormous, but some of the direct sonic intensity of the Mark III is traded for width.
Doubling the available oscillators within the same physical footprint is a daunting challenge, and Mark III manages to strike an impressive balance of providing the right methods of control over each oscillator, physical room to ‘wiggle’ and prioritization of available features. Some controls present on previous versions were removed, and others moved to ‘shaft’ type potentiometers or button functionality. The primary frequency controls and waveform selection faders are a joy to use, but some of the shaft-type controls can prove difficult to access in a dense patch. Nonetheless, when compared with the density of previous versions and the huge feature increase in the Mark III, it is impressive that so much control was wedged into the original’s footprint.
My overall impression of the Mark III as a user and live performer has been excellent. The Mark III is clearly a mature module, with special design emphasis given for use in a performance context. Audio quality is outstanding, and the user interface is physically satisfying. Preset capability is a welcome attribute for this functionally dense module, and allows for easy access to 8 slots of saved panel settings. Those seeking instant gratification will find it, though the Piston Honda is very much an oscillator in the traditional sense, and must be patched as such: no internal envelopes, VCAs, or other ‘voice module’ functionality to be found here! The build quality is excellent, featuring a solid metal front panel with bold and legible writing, panel mounted potentiometers, and even a circuit board designed in such a way that it shields the user from direct contact with most of the electronic components.
The Mark III surpasses its predecessors but still retains the essence of the Piston Honda legacy. A myriad of control allows you to go from glassy bells to angry modem with a finger gesture, so that deciding whether to use Mark III in a subtle, beautiful way, or to succumb to digital mayhem is a constant struggle. If you’re seeking a refined digital oscillator with performance oriented features, the Industrial Music Electronics Piston Honda Mark III is well worth a look.
17HP +12v: 105 mA -12v: 35 mA Price: $525